Monthly Archives: March 2019

Lenten Sundays Series: The Sunday of St. John Climacus

This is the sixth in a series of posts that focuses on the Sundays of Great Lent (and Holy Week and Pascha). Each week we will share ideas of ways to help your Sunday Church School students learn more about that particular Sunday’s focus. We will share each blog early, so that you have time to read it before the forthcoming Sunday, in case you find any of those ideas helpful for your particular class.

Here’s a meditation on the Sunday of St. John Climacus for you to ponder before you create a lesson for your students:

Today we commemorate St. John Climacus and his work “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” both of which have had a great impact on the Holy Orthodox Church through their influence on the monastic community and on the Church at large.

St. John was given the name “Climacus” because of his writings. “Climacus” means “ladder” and thus his name is a nod to the work by that name. From a very young age, John desired to serve God with all of his heart. He became a monk at the Mt. Sinai Monastery when he was only 16 years old, and he served there faithfully for years before going into the desert to live a hermit’s life.

The fight against the devil and his passions was difficult, but John faithfully prayed and focused on Christ, and over time he became holier because of his refusal to give in to those passions. His holiness drew people to John, and even monks would come to him to ask for advice. God gave him the gift to be able to help people who were severely tempted and/or upset to be at peace.

God used John to work some miracles during his lifetime. For example, one time his disciple Moses was far from their dwelling, searching for dirt for their garden, when he got very hot and tired, so he took a rest under a big rock. As this was happening, John was back at his cell, praying, when he had a revelation that Moses was in danger. John began to pray fervently for his disciple. Later in the evening, when Moses returned home, he told John that while he had been sleeping under the rock, he heard John calling him, so he woke up and moved quickly, just as the huge rock crashed down right where he had been sleeping! God had heard John’s prayers and saved Moses with this miracle.

Many years passed, and John continued to faithfully pray and read from the lives of the saints. He continued to live a holy life. At age 74, he was made the abbot at the Mt. Sinai Monastery. The monks there asked him to write down all of the rules that he’d followed for his whole life, so that they could follow his example. He wrote about thirty steps that can lead monks (and any Orthodox Christian) closer to God. He called the steps “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” Although this book was written about 1,400 years ago, it is still considered the ultimate guide to the Christian ascetic life.

St. John Climacus, please intercede for our salvation!

 

Here are a few suggestions of ways that you and your students can learn about St. John Climacus, if you choose to teach a lesson about him and/or the ladder of Divine Ascent.

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“The ascetic example of this great Saint of the Church inspires us in our Lenten journey.” Before teaching your class about him, you may want to read this thorough account of the life of St. John Climacus here: https://www.goarch.org/sunday-stjohnclimacus

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Teachers of young children may want to incorporate this art idea into a lesson on St. John Climacus and his Ladder of Divine Ascent: http://www.creativehandscreativeminds.com/2014/03/st-john-of-ladder.html

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Find ideas of ways to help your students learn from St. John Climacus’ life, and from his “Ladder of Divine Ascent” (including craft ideas) here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/03/20/lenten-learning-st-john-climacus/

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Middle-years students (and older ones) will benefit from reading or listening to this article by Fr. Andrew Lemeshonok from St. Elizabeth Convent: http://orthochristian.com/102249.html Here is a sample from the article:

“The forthcoming week is devoted to a great ascetic – Saint John Climacus. Spiritual life is a ladder, which leads to the Heavenly Kingdom. We climb it, we fall down, we hit the ground, we stand up and we fall again. The thing is, we need to stand up over and over again… The main thing is to humble yourself – to acknowledge your own weakness and to let God enter your life. You do not need to surprise people with your feats and talents. The Lord speaks simply in the Gospel: ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls’ (Matthew, 11:29).”
After reading the article, discuss it together as a class. Talk together about ways that we fall from the ladder, and what should be our response when we do fall (get back up and start climbing again). Encourage each other to get back up and climb again. You may want to close this class with an art activity: consider allowing your students to create a poster that reminds them of this lesson. Perhaps it could be an encouragement to keep trying, to keep climbing the ladder, even when they fall; or a reminder that they are on a ladder in the first place; or a quote from St. John Climacus himself. Encourage them to hang the poster in their room or to give it to someone who needs encouragement to keep climbing.

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Have you ever read “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” by St. John Climacus? It is available as a pdf here: http://www.prudencetrue.com/images/TheLadderofDivineAscent.pdf

Consider printing off a step (or two) that could be the most beneficial to your older Sunday Church School students, and engage them in a discussion about that step. How does St. John recommend that we climb towards God in that way? Has anything changed in the years since he wrote this, or is this step still relevant to us today? How can we, right now, work towards climbing that step of the ladder?

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Classes of older middle school students or older could benefit from reading this article, “Why Do We Need the Ladder?” The article offers reasons from a deacon, a priest, and an archpriest of why it is important for modern-day Orthodox Christians to read and learn from St. John Climacus’ “Ladder of Divine Ascent.” After a quick review of the life of St. John  (which the students may be able to contribute, depending on their previous studies), divide the class into three groups. Give one interview from the article to each of the three groups. Allow the groups some time to read their interview/portion of the article and come up with a few main points to share with the other groups. Encourage them to come up with a creative way to share their points with the rest of the class. Allow time for each group to present their portion of the article with the rest of the classroom, so that you can all learn together how we can benefit from St. John’s writings. http://orthochristian.com/102181.html

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This three-minute video takes a closer look at the icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent and could be a helpful addition to a lesson on St. John Climacus. http://orthochristian.com/92323.html

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Teachers and older students will benefit from listening to this talk on the life and teachings of St. John of the Ladder: https://orthodoxlivonia.org/files/Adult-Ed-Classes/2018-03-18-Ad-Ed-Class.mp3 (The talk is 33 minutes long.)

 

Lenten Sundays Series: The Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross

This is the fifth in a series of posts that focuses on the Sundays of Great Lent (and Holy Week and Pascha). Each week we will share ideas of ways to help your Sunday Church School students learn more about that particular Sunday’s focus. We will share each blog early, so that you have time to read it before the forthcoming Sunday, in case you find any of those ideas helpful for your particular class.

Here’s a meditation on the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross for you to ponder before you create a lesson for your students:

On the third Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the Sunday of the Holy Cross. We’re halfway through Lent at this point, and perhaps some of our determination and eagerness for the Lenten journey is waning a bit. That is exactly why the Church Fathers chose this Sunday for us to commemorate the Holy Cross.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his book “Great Lent”, reminds us that throughout Great Lent we are crucifying our own self, trying to live up to this week’s Gospel reading. The Gospel reading for the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross is from Mark 8 and 9, and reminds us of Christ’s command, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Schmemann goes on to explain that it would do us no good to take up our cross and follow Christ if it were not for Him taking up the Cross in the first place. “It is His Cross, not ours, that saves us. It is His Cross that gives not only meaning but also power to others.” (1, pp 76-77)

In gratitude for His taking up the Cross, and to encourage us to continue taking up ours, the Church has given us this Sunday. His example of suffering willingly and completely reminds us that our struggles are small in comparison. But it also reminds us that He understands struggle and pain. Today’s epistle reading exhorts us, “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16) Christ’s conquering death by taking up the Cross offers us the hope of resurrection as well as the assurance that our struggle is not in vain: it leads us towards Him, towards heaven.

The placement of the Veneration of the Holy Cross in the middle of Great Lent is more than just an encouragement for us to keep going. It also is a fulfillment of an earlier event. “It’s very beautiful, actually. Think of Paradise, the Garden of Eden. The Tree of Life was placed in the middle of the garden of Eden, and here [in the middle of Great Lent] we find the Holy Cross — often said to come from the wood of the Tree of Life, for this wooden Cross is indeed the means to eternal life. The Holy Church places it here to remind us of Adam’s sin, and to remind us that it is only through the Holy Cross that we will find eternal life.” (2, pp 107-108, brackets mine)

And so, in the hope of the resurrection; with determination to continue our struggle (for He understands struggle and has made a way for us); let us sing with joy today, “Oh Lord, save Thy people and bless thine inheritance, granting to Thy people victory over all their enemies; and by the power of Thy Cross, preserving Thy kingdom!”

Glory to God for His example, His victory, and His great mercy towards us and our own struggles, through the Life-Giving Cross!

Resources:
1. Schmemann, Alexander. Great Lent; Journey to Pascha. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974.
2. Bjeletich, Elissa and Kristina Wenger. Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families. Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019.

Here are a few resources you may find helpful as you prepare to teach your students about the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross:

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This short lesson explains veneration in very simple terms. Teachers of young children may find it helpful to read this before leading a class on the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross. https://stmichaeljermyn.org/files/CHURCH%20SCHOOL/Venerating-Icons.pdf
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What does it mean to venerate something, and why do we venerate the cross on THIS particular Sunday of Great Lent? Find some of these answers here and share them with your students : https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2015/03/11/on-the-sunday-of-the-veneration-of-the-holy-cross/
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Find stories, activities, and ideas related to the Holy Cross in this back issue of “Little Falcons”, a magazine for Orthodox children. To order, print this document and order issue #47.
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Teachers whose students are mid-elementary or older may find this to be a helpful reading with their class. It ties together the story of how the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross came to be and the epistle and Gospel reading for the week. http://dce.oca.org/assets/templates/bulletin.cfm?mode=html&id=43
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Find activity ideas and printable resources, geared for a variety of age levels and related to the Veneration of the Holy Cross here: https://orthodoxpebbles.com/orthodox-basics/tending-garden-week4/
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Your students may learn a lot from watching this short video about the cross: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1RUgfqI33M
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Want to do an art piece featuring the Cross as part of your lesson on the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross? The following links offer tutorials for a variety of art techniques that have a cross as their central theme. The tutorials utilise art mediums that are common to many Sunday Church School classrooms.
Paper: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2014/12/13/art-projects-for-sunday-church-school-paper/
Crayons:
https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/art-techniques-for-sunday-church-school-using-crayons/
Chalk: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/art-projects-for-sunday-church-school-chalk/
Markers:
https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/01/17/art-projects-for-sunday-church-school-using-markers/
Watercolor paints: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/art-projects-for-sunday-church-school-using-watercolor-paints/
Mixed media:
https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/art-projects-for-sunday-church-school-mixed-media-collage/
3-d art: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/02/06/art-projects-for-sunday-church-school-3-dimensional-art/

Lenten Sundays Series: The Sunday of St. Gregory of Palamas

 

This is the fourth in a series of posts that focuses on the Sundays of Great Lent (and Holy Week and Pascha). Each week we will share ideas of ways to help your Sunday Church School students learn more about that particular Sunday’s focus. We will share each blog early, so that you have time to read it before the forthcoming Sunday, in case you find any of those ideas helpful for your particular class.

Here’s a meditation on the Sunday of St. Gregory of Palamas for you to ponder before you create a lesson for your students:

On this second Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate St. Gregory of Palamas’ successful defense of the Orthodox belief that humans can both know and experience God. He asserted that we can know with our minds that God exists, and we can also experience Him through His uncreated energies. This flew in the face of the teachings of Baraam, a critic of St. Gregory’s and of hesychasm in general.

St. Gregory was born in 1296 to a prominent family in Constantinople. His father died when Gregory was still young. The youth was so bright and hardworking that the emperor himself took interest in Gregory, helping to raise and educate him in the hopes that he would one day hold a high government position.

But Gregory left all of the glamor of Constantinople’s elite behind when he departed for Mount Athos at age 20 to become a monk. (And he was not the only member of his family to do this. Shortly thereafter, His mother and sisters also became monastics.) As a monk on Mt. Athos, Gregory learned about “Hesychasm,” a very calm, still way to pray. He mastered this prayer of the heart, and thus we know him as a “hesychast.”

In 1326, Gregory went to Thessalonica and was ordained to the priesthood. He lived the life of a hermit on weekdays, silently praying alone and away from the world. On the weekends, he would celebrate the holy services in his parish and he would preach so beautifully that his sermons brought his listeners to tears.

When Barlaam, a bright and studious monk, came to Mt. Athos and heard about hesychasm, he proclaimed it to be heresy. He insisted that it is not possible for humans to know God’s essence or to experience His energies such as uncreated light. His dissent caused quite a stir, and Gregory was called to debate with Barlaam about this. Gregory’s studies in the world and his experience as a hesychast put him in the perfect position for this debate.

Gregory first tried to speak to Barlaam about all of this, but speaking did not seem to make any progress, so he began to write prolifically about the prayer of the heart and its validity. Although Gregory was writing a lot, they continued to meet and debate in person as well. One of these debates was before the 1341 Council of Constantinople, which took place in Hagia Sophia. This time, they were arguing about the Transfiguration. Gregory stood by the Orthodox belief that God revealed Himself to the disciples on Mt. Tabor, by using His Divine Energies. Barlaam said theirs was not an actual experience of God: just a helpful gift to the disciples, who couldn’t really experience God because they are humans.

The members of the Council upheld Gregory’s position as the truly Orthodox position. They agreed that God, Whose Essence we cannot approach, chooses to reveal Himself through His Energies. Humans can see those Energies, such as the light that the disciples could see on Mt. Tabor. After the Council ruled that Barlaam’s teachings were heresy, Barlaam fled to Calabria.

In spite of the ruling, some people still argued against Gregory, even locking him up in prison for 4 years at one point. However, the very next patriarch released him and made him Archbishop of Thessalonica. In his later years, God gave Gregory the gift to perform miracles, including healing the sick, and he was granted a vision of St. John Chrysostom on the night before he died. His last words were, “To the heights! To the heights!”

Thanks to St. Gregory Palamas, the Church has maintained the truth that we humans are able to experience God through His uncreated energies. St. Gregory’s life of dedication to God and His Church, as well as his willingness to stand for truth set him apart as a wonderful example to all of us. Sometimes people refer to the Sunday of St. Gregory of Palamas as “The Sunday of Orthodoxy Part Two”, since his defense saved the Orthodox Church when it was under a second major attack.

The Gospel reading for this second Sunday of Lent is the story of the paralytic whose four friends lowered him through the roof of the place where Christ was so that he could be healed by Him. Our Lord not only healed his legs, making him able to walk again, but also healed his sins, telling him, “Your sins are forgiven you.” How beautiful it is for us to be reminded, right here near the beginning of Great Lent that the truth of our Faith is worth standing up for, as did St. Gregory; at the same time receiving the reassurance that Christ is waiting for us to come to Him so that He can heal both our soul and our body.

St. Gregory of Palamas, please intercede for us and for our salvation.

 

Here are a few ideas of ways to help your Sunday Church School students learn about St. Gregory of Palamas:

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Here are printable bulletins for children that talk about today’s Gospel reading and offer a short look at St. Gregory of Palamas. Although they are not dated for this year, they could help in a lesson on St. Gregory of Palamas (and/or the Gospel reading of the day). http://myocn.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Childrens-Word-163.pdf

http://myocn.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Childrens-Word-213.pdf

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Find lessons on St. Gregory of Palamas, at every level, here:

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/3-5-years-old/st-gregory-palamas

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/6-9-years-old/st-gregory-palamas

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/10-12-years-old/st-gregory-palamas

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/middle-school/church-established-st-gregory-palamas-and-st-john-climacus

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/high-school/church-established-st-gregory-palamas-and-st-john-climacus

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This episode of the “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts” podcast tells about St. Gregory of Palamas, and is worded in a way that young children can understand. http://audio.ancientfaith.com/specials/tendinggarden/ttg_2018-03-04-a.mp3?fbclid=IwAR2Fmeq4DCbcwU9Fc-qgO9DZ29f9jcVoKamJ3fz-URQCOtUqPYjXW8ZNV70

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Find a “Jesus Prayer” craft idea that can be a natural response to a lesson on St. Gregory of Palamas here: https://craftycontemplative.com/2012/03/13/a-childs-lesson-on-st-gregory-palamas/

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Can we know God? This episode of “Be the Bee” tackles this question, which Barlaam and St. Gregory disagreed about all those years ago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OpJYSII4NFU
Teachers of middle-years students may want to watch this with their students as part of a discussion of the life of St. Gregory Palamas, then discuss it together.

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Teachers of older church school students may wish to take in one of the resources mentioned here, along with their class, as part of a lesson on St. Gregory of Palamas. https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2015/03/04/lenten-learning-st-gregory-of-palamas/

After watching or reading one of these resources about his life, talk together about St. Gregory’s holiness, including a discussion of hesychasm. What is hesychasm, anyway? What can it look like for us? How can we ask God to enlighten our darkness, as did St. Gregory? What will happen if we ask Him to do that? Will it make any difference in our life? (An aside that the students may find very interesting is a quick look at uncreated light, as it appears in some pictures or videos wherein God chooses to illumine people in a way that perhaps no one can see at the time, but it shows in the photos. There’s a video posted by a priest about uncreated light that shows three different times/ways this has happened. https://orthodoxcityhermit.com/uncreated6-2/)

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Lenten Sundays Series: The Sunday of Orthodoxy

This is the third in a series of posts that focuses on the Sundays of Great Lent (and Holy Week and Pascha). Each week we will share ideas of ways to help your Sunday Church School students learn more about that particular Sunday’s focus. We will share each blog early, so that you have time to read it before the forthcoming Sunday, in case you find any of those ideas helpful for your particular class.

Here’s a meditation on the Sunday of Orthodoxy for you to ponder before you create a lesson for your students:

 

On this first Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the return of icons into the life of the Church. In 726, the Iconoclastic Controversy began. The iconoclasts were people who were convinced that icons did not belong in the church. They considered the icons to be heresy, because they believed that the Orthodox were worshipping the icons, and God commanded us not to worship graven images.

But Orthodoxy has always clearly taught that we worship God, and no one – and nothing – else. We venerate icons, because we respect and honor these people who have loved God so completely, and we also honor Christ as we see Him reflected in their life. And that is not the only reason that it is proper to have and venerate icons. More importantly, since Christ took on human flesh, He has become visible and tangible. As a result, we can make an icon of Him, because we know how He looks. (In fact, He Himself made the first icon, the “Icon-not-made-with-hands”!) Icons help to solidify for us the incarnation of Christ.

But unfortunately, the zealous iconoclasts did not (or refused to) understand all of this. Much blood was shed as they removed and ruined icons from the churches, then persecuted and killed their Orthodox neighbors. Many Orthodox Christians hid the icons in their homes in order to protect them.

The iconoclast struggle went on for more than a century. It began to come to an end when the seventh ecumenical council met and declared once and for all that icons should be allowed in churches, and given the same veneration as is given to the Cross and the Gospel book. It finally ended on the first Sunday of Great Lent in 843, when the Empress Theodora (acting as regent for her son Michael) proclaimed that icons should be returned to their proper place in the churches, and they were! Every year since then, on the first Sunday of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church has celebrated the return of the icons to the Church. This Sunday has come to be called the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” or the “Sunday of Orthodoxy.”

It is no accident that, on this Sunday, our Epistle reading is from St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40, where we read of the faithfulness of the patriarchs, and the pain that which they endured, in order to maintain that faithfulness. The epistle encourages all of us to fight on for what is right, as did both the patriarchs and the iconophiles. The Gospel reading, John 1:43-51, is also not accidental. It tells of when Christ first called Philip, who called Nathaniel and told him to “come and see!”

The icons in our churches and our homes are a beautiful way for us to “come and see” God and what He has done in the life of others. They simultaneously tell us stories and point us to Christ, who is alive and at work through His saints. We venerate icons because we love Him and how He has worked in the lives of those who have fought the good fight and finished the race before us. Glory to God, who is great in His saints!

Thy pure image do we venerate, O good One, asking forgiveness of our sins, O Christ our God; for by Thine own will Thou didst ascend the Cross in Thy body, to save Thy creatures from the bondage of the enemy. Thou hast verily filled all with joy, since Thou didst come, O our Savior, to save the world.

Here are a variety of ideas that may be helpful to you, should you plan to teach your students about the Sunday of Orthodoxy:

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Check out the Orthodox Christian Network’s weekly children’s bulletin, “The Children’s Word,” found here: http://myocn.net/orthodox-christian-childrens-newsletter/. Each week’s bulletin features something related to the life of the church that week.

 

You may be able to use parts or all of last year’s Sunday of Orthodoxy bulletin in your church school class, in a lesson about the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Find it here: http://myocn.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Childrens-Word-263.pdf

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Find a printable line art version of the icon of the Restoration of Icons here: http://dce.oca.org/resources/tag/lent/

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This video episode of “Be the Bee” discusses icons, their importance, the difference between worship and veneration, and some of the background which led to the triumph over iconoclasm which we celebrate on the Sunday of Orthodoxy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8iFOgppS6Y

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There are many different beautiful icon craft ideas that you may wish to add to a lesson on the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Find some of them here:

https://orthodoxpebbles.com/orthodox-basics/holy-icon-crafts/

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Teachers of students in the middle grades or higher will want to take a look at the way the Sunday of Orthodoxy’s origin is explained in a way that can be read to (or by) your students, here: http://otftd.blogspot.com/2013/03/a-lesson-on-sunday-of-orthodoxy.html

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Middle school, high school, or even adult students will find this video about the Triumph of Orthodoxy to be a good launching pad for a discussion about this Sunday. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2ZMK7XlhRU It ties in the Gospel and Epistle readings with the theme of the day!

Lenten Sundays Series: Forgiveness Sunday

This is the second in a series of posts that focuses on the Sundays of Great Lent (and Holy Week and Pascha). Each week we will share ideas of ways to help your Sunday Church School students learn more about that particular Sunday’s focus. We will share each blog early, so that you have time to read it before the forthcoming Sunday, in case you find any of those ideas helpful for your particular class.

Here’s a meditation on Forgiveness Sunday for you to ponder before you create a lesson for your students:

The Sunday immediately before Great Lent begins is usually referred to in the Orthodox Church as “Forgiveness Sunday.” Forgiveness Sunday has two major themes: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, and Forgiveness. We will take a short look at each of these themes, here.

It is important that this day features the expulsion of Adam and Eve, who in the beginning walked and talked with God in Paradise. This sort of relationship with God is what we wish to restore in our own life, and Lent is a time when the Church encourages us to do so with vigor. So it makes sense that She provides us with a reminder of what has been lost, and how it was lost, just before we begin Great Lent. This reminder also causes us to ponder the reality of Hades – where everyone went after their death, after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise. Because we are blessed to live in a time when we are able to know Christ, we also think of Him, who by His death trampled the doors of Hades, and rescued Adam and Eve, and all of us from Hades’ grasp, forever. So, even right here, just before Great Lent begins, we already have a spoiler alert. We know where this is going, and we want to be part of it!

Forgiveness Sunday’s Gospel reading is found in Matthew 6: 14-21 (NKJV)
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

This Gospel reading is, in a sense, a good map for our Lenten journey. It begins with forgiveness. In order to restore our relationship to God, we need to be forgiven the multitude of our sins. This Gospel reading reminds us that if we want forgiveness from God, we need to also forgive others. The reading continues by telling us how to fast: not by showing off, but simply and quietly, genuinely. And it finishes with an admonishment for our focus: it should not be on earthly things, but on the heavenly. Great Lent is the perfect time to re-orient our focus to heavenly things. The Gospel reading’s last sentence summarizes the whole passage: where our treasure is is also where our heart is found.

Let’s take another look at the Gospel reading, this time through the lens of that last sentence. If we treasure forgiveness from God, our heart will be full of forgiveness for our fellow humans. During Great Lent, we are offered the opportunity to serve others willingly. We can more effectively serve if we are forgiving, not holding grudges. Forgiving others and serving them restores our relationship with them, and opens our hearts to receive forgiveness from God.

If we treasure relationship with God, our heart will be full of joyful, non-pretentious fasting. During Lent we are invited to eat less and pray more, giving Him our attention instead of seeking the attention of others or looking to food for satisfaction. Working to control our physical body’s desires and spending more time and energy in prayer restores our relationship to God.

And if we truly treasure God’s Heavenly Kingdom, the stuff of earth will matter not to us. During Great Lent, we are encouraged to do a better job of giving alms. Almsgiving lays up for us treasures in Heaven, while also blessing us with the opportunity to extend love to our fellow humans, and in doing so, to Christ Himself. Letting go of earthly things and earthly cares restores our ability to care for what is important to God: His creatures, His creation, and His Kingdom.

The Church steps right into the beginning of this Gospel passage with Her practice of offering Forgiveness Vespers to begin Great Lent. We’re not sure exactly when this beautiful service began to be offered. We do know that Forgiveness Vespers has been practiced since at least 520 AD, for it is mentioned in the story of the Life of St. Mary of Egypt. So Orthodox Christians have been beginning Great Lent by forgiving each other for a very long time.

According to Forgiveness Sunday’s Gospel reading, forgiving each other is a natural way to begin Great Lent.

Please forgive me, a sinner. And may God forgive us all and restore us to right relationship with Him.

Here are some some ideas you may wish to use as you help your students learn about Forgiveness Sunday:

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This blog post from several years ago features a whole list of ways to help your students learn about Forgiveness Sunday: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/02/13/on-forgiveness-vespers/

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Listen to this Sunday’s Gospel reading told in simple terms for younger children, and read from the Gospel for older children, at https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/letusattend. Find 5 levels of printable pages with questions for related discussions at http://ww1.antiochian.org/christianeducation/letusattend.

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Teachers of young children may find this podcast helpful as they share Forgiveness Sunday with their students. https://www.ancientfaith.com/specials/tending_the_garden/forgiveness_sunday_for_younger_children

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Begin a class on Forgiveness Sunday (for young children through elementary) with a pile of bricks and a red paper heart in your classroom. Ask the students why they think you have these items in your class. Invite the students to stack the bricks on top of the paper heart, on the floor of your classroom. As they stack, invite them to say a word or an action that can make someone sad or hurt. Then show them this video from The Orthodox Children’s Press, about Forgiveness and Forgiveness Vespers. https://youtu.be/ED3f0e4QBXM . After watching (and reading it aloud if your students are too young to read it for themselves), ask again why you have these items in your classroom. Invite students to practice for Forgiveness Vespers by taking turns picking up a brick from the pile, saying, “God forgives and I forgive!” and placing it in a trail/path shape on your classroom floor.

Craft/activity idea #1: To focus on the truth that our choices hurt others, but God can forgive and heal those hurts, invite students to create their own red paper heart. Direct them to trade with a friend, and make a cut on the friend’s heart. Remind them that when we say and do mean things, it’s like hurting the other person’s heart. When they get their heart back again, they may feel very sad, because it hurts when people do mean things to us. But God can bring healing to us when we forgive, so encourage them to tell the other person, “God forgives and I forgive!,” then pass out tape for each student to put on the cut of their heart, mending it whole again.

Craft/activity idea #2: To focus on each student’s need to forgive or be forgiven, direct each student to make a reminder of the video and brick activity by cutting a heart out of red paper and writing “God forgives and I forgive” on it. Invite them to write or draw on the back of the heart the different things and/or people that they will forgive or ask forgiveness of, at Forgiveness Vespers.

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Teachers of elementary-aged students through teens may find one (or more!) of these “Be the Bee” videos helpful for a lesson on Forgiveness Sunday:

Forgiveness Vespers is the focus in this episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLFVJqHmAkY

Forgiveness unifies us as we learn in this episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsDRWB2emwc

Find four ways to forgive in this episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8pfuimXIM0

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Teachers of teens may want to take a look at this lesson on Forgiveness, when preparing a lesson about Forgiveness Sunday: https://www.orthodoxcatechismproject.org/grade-9/-/asset_publisher/sVl6TXix4npP/content/forgiveness-booklet

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Consider printing a copy of this (or sending the link, if you have email addresses for your students’ parents) home after a lesson on Forgiveness Sunday. It contains discussion questions and activity ideas that families can do together as they learn together about Forgiveness Sunday. https://www.goarch.org/documents/32058/2618758/familygospellesson_forgivenessunday.pdf/51c7c29a-e862-4a37-81c2-be6bcc922dd6